When Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced—in a series of tweets, naturally—that the platform would no longer accept political ad dollars in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential race, the responses were mixed.
Advocates and some Democratic candidates lauded Twitter’s decision that, as Dorsey put it, the reach of political messages should be “earned” rather than bought. Others, like Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg, argued that it’s not within the wheelhouse of private companies to “censor politicians and the news.”
The only people shrugging off Twitter’s decision, it appears, are political advertisers themselves.
“Advertisers will have to adjust, but it’s not a fatal blow,” said Reid Vineis, president of digital at the election- and advocacy-focused agency Majority Strategies. “Frankly, I just don’t think Twitter was earning that much political ad spend as the other major platforms—like Facebook and Google—to begin with.”
A similarly blasé response could be heard from digital advertisers behind presidential campaigns. One official behind Trump’s 2020 campaign was quoted in Reuters saying that he’d spent a mere $6,000 this campaign season promoting the candidate’s account, compared to the $21.3 million on Facebook since May 2018.
If political ads make up less than 1% of the company’s total predicted ad revenue next year, as Zuckerberg has often said, then, according to Vineis, that percentage is even smaller for Twitter—a company that, especially as of late, has been reported falling short of advertisers’—and Wall Street’s—expectations.
Twitter ads vs. organic engagement
Meanwhile, Richie Alicea, digital director behind Republican candidate Joe Walsh’s campaign, told Adweek that the return on advertising on Twitter, in his experience, has been “negligible”—especially when candidates can leverage their already-existing Twitter audiences through organic engagement, rather than paid reach.
“Political advertising is a pot of gold for the media business; campaigns will spend on anything and everything which has an audience and can demonstrate a return in terms of donations,” said Jeff Greenfield, chief attribution officer of the cloud-based data company C3 Metrics.
As he explained, Twitter might have the audience, but performance simply wasn’t there. Greenfield pointed out that Twitter generated less than $3 million during the 2018 midterm elections, likely due to the platform’s inability to demonstrate a return on investment for political campaigners, he said.
In a lot of ways, according to Vineis, this is because of the nature of the platform: Twitter is never where a candidate would go to “convince a voter,” he said—especially not with the 280-character constraint.
“Twitter is more of the place where you’re a man on the corner of the street, kind of shouting up at the sky,” he explained. Meanwhile, a platform like Facebook that’s more collaborative and built on “conversations” with people you know, is better suited for the kind of interaction a citizen might want to have with an elected official, Greenfield said.
Targeting on Twitter is problematic
Meanwhile, attempts to target potential voters fell equally flat for marketers like Vineis. Twitter has, historically, offered the ability to target based on basic political affiliations, and some of those political affiliations were gleaned from the accounts a particular account followed.
But as Vineis pointed out, an account that follows Elizabeth Warren might simply do it because she’s newsworthy—not because the user supports the Democratic candidate’s platform.
Another tricky thing about targeting on Twitter, Vineis added, is the lack of confidence. On other platforms like Facebook, political advertisers can upload a voter file list–names and addresses—that needed to be reached—and have the confidence that someone’s real name and address were affiliated with a particular Facebook profile.
That peace of mind doesn’t come with Twitter, which is built with anonymity at its core.
“On Facebook, you cough up all of this personal information, like your first and last name or your location,” he said. “On Twitter, you could talk to people’s profiles or handles, but you never really knew if you were talking to individual voters—which is what these campaigns are all about.”
Issue-based advertisers could be hurt
Even though political advertisers might not be sweating the incoming changes, those running campaigns at the fringes of politics—so-called “issue-based” advertisers—certainly are.
“I have a feeling that’s where we’re going to see the most pain around Twitter’s decision,” said Grace Briscoe, vice president of candidates and causes for the ad-tech platform Centro. “We’re going to see cases where they feel like they shouldn’t be caught up in the policy, but it’s going to become a headache for them to launch any sorts of ads.”
While running ads that mention “elections” or “running for office” might be easy to flag as a political ad, those about issues like civil rights, healthcare or immigration fall into more of a grey area. On Facebook, which has had guardrails surrounding what passes as an “issue” for the past year, Briscoe reported that the company ends up flagging the inoffensive more often than not.
“From what we’ve seen with these kinds of rollouts, we’ll see advertisers go to launch an ad that shouldn’t get flagged as this category, blocked, and then they’re gonna have to appeal,” she said, giving the example of clients flagged for running ads related to selling solar panels. To the machine learning at the core of Facebook’s ad review systems, someone selling solar panels is automatically swept into the same category as a pundit using the platform to campaign about his stance on renewable energy.
Twitter’s decision to completely ban political ads will force it to draw even firmer lines around who can and cannot be an issue-based advertiser, meaning that the gripes they’re currently having on Facebook are likely to come to Twitter as well, Briscoe said.
“It’s going to cause a lot of headaches, especially for a platform whose real key advantage is being able to do that kind of rapid response, launch something right away,” she added. “If you go into a 48-hour appeal or ad receive process to launch your ad, you’re not responding rapidly to whatever the trending thing is.”